DISCLAIMER: The characters of Popular do not belong to me, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story began as an homage to the play, Cyrano de Bergerac and the works that it inspired, most notably the movie Roxanne and the TV series, My So-called Life. However, it eventually veers away from its inspiration. The title is taken from the song "Mexican Wrestler," by Jill Sobule. Thanks, as always, to Junebug.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To green_quarter70[at]yahoo.com

I Can Crack All Your Ribs, But I Canít Break Your Heart
By Green Quarter

 

Part 1

Sam McPherson entered the school library and searched the faces of her schoolmates until she found the particular face she was looking for. Never one to back away from a difficult situation (especially one of her own making), she purposefully crossed the room and sat down at a library table across from Kennedy High's slightly tarnished football hero. "I'm your tutor," she said sullenly to Josh Ford.

Looking up from the current issue of People magazine into the eyes of the one who had done the tarnishing, Josh recoiled in disgust. "You?"

"Yes, me. Principal Krupps forced me to 'volunteer' after the whole GPA exposé thing. He thought it a karmic-ly apt punishment." Crossed arms and a wry delivery did little to disguise Sam's discomfort. She had known that her latest article in the Zapruder had been ethically borderline, but had done it anyway. Just one more instance of her raging against the Kennedy machine, consequences be damned.

"What did I do to deserve this punishment?" Josh asked indignantly. "I don't want you to be my tutor. What do you think of that?"

"Fine with me. I'll just go tell Krupps that you refused my help and I'll have my lunch periods to myself again," Sam called his bluff, knowing that participating in the tutoring program had become a condition of his remaining on the team. It was either shape up academically, or be benched for the rest of the season. Wooden chair legs scraped discordantly against linoleum as Sam got up to leave the library.

"Wait," Josh muttered, fuming at her. Coach had him by the short and curlies; there was no doubt about it. He had to do this. "This sucks, you know." At least he had gotten his feeble objections on the record.

"I know," Sam agreed solemnly, sitting back down, "but there's nothing either one of us can do about it so we might as well get started."

"Whatever," Josh grumbled.

"And although reading about the latest antics of the ex-Federline family might be a helluva lot more interesting, it's not doing much to improve your grades," Sam gently pried the tabloid magazine from Josh's grasp and got down to business. "What do you have for English homework?"


"So now I have to spend every lunch period in the library with Josh until the end of the term," Sam complained to her mother that evening as she sliced tomatoes for a salad.

Jane turned away from the stove to face her daughter. "You're not getting any sympathy from me. It's the least you can do after publishing that article."

"Mom! Whose side are you on?" Sam looked up from her task and accidentally dropped her knife on the cutting board with a clatter.

"There are no sides that I can see, Sam," Jane responded reasonably. "But you did cross a line when you printed the GPAs of the football team and the cheerleading squad. That was a blatant invasion of privacy and nobody's business."

"You don't think the student body deserves to know that people who participate in the school's most popular activities aren't held to any kind of academic standard?" Sam challenged.

"Come on now," Jane chided. "Do you honestly think that public embarrassment was the way to get your message across? You could have written the story ten different ways and never used that information. It was malicious. Admit it."

"It was not malicious," Sam denied, "it's the truth!" Sam picked up the knife and stabbed the air with it, emphasizing her point.

Wearily wondering where her daughter's stubbornness came from, Jane dropped the subject. Endless discussion of last week's Zapruder article had changed nothing, and she was tired of the way Sam's actions were dividing her nascent family. The girls had just begun to get along when Sam had embarked on a crusade kick a few months ago, finding new ways to agitate Brooke and keeping the discord between them continual and fresh, like a bruise that stayed mottled and purple from repeated punching. Jane had kept a progressively closer eye on her daughter, concerned by the restless frustration that seemed to result in Sam lashing out with these upsetting projects that made everyone connected with them miserable. That the incidents were just short of doing real harm didn't make Jane feel any better.

Two brunette heads turned at the sound of the kitchen door opening, and Sam bent to her tomatoes as Jane welcomed Brooke home.

"Hi, Brooke, honey, how was your day?" Jane smiled at her stepdaughter, turning her cheek as Brooke gave her an affectionate peck.

"Exhausting. I'm going to get out of these clothes and take a shower." Brooke gestured to her limp Glamazon workout gear, ignoring the other occupant of the kitchen.

"Dinner is almost ready; can you be done by then?" Jane asked.

"That depends," Brooke said, her tone becoming chilly. "Will she be there?"

Jane sighed, but Sam answered for her.

"Of course I will, Brooke, just like I am every night."

"Then no, I'll just grab something from the fridge later," Brooke directed her reply to Jane. Mother and daughter watched as she bounded up the stairs without another word.

"This has to stop, Sam."

"I didn't do anything," Sam protested.

"Yes, you did. And I've had enough. I want both of your faces, preferably smiling, sitting at the table for dinner when Mike gets home." Jane looked at her watch. "You've got about ten minutes, Sam. Make this right."


As Sam was about to knock on Brooke's door, it opened. Brooke stood there in her robe, obviously on her way to the bathroom for her shower.

"Get out of the way," Brooke barked.

Sam didn't move and said nothing, at a sudden loss for words. This was the first sentence Brooke had spoken to her since the article was published.

Brooke shifted her weight and stuck out her chin. "Do you want me to push you out of the way?" she warned, "because I will."

Sam cleared her throat. "My mother would really like it if you joined us for dinner. I would like it too."

"I have no problem with your mother. But the thought of sharing a table with you turns my stomach so I'm going to decline your invitation."

"Brooke, why are you so pissed off? I was only telling the truth in that article. And anyway, you have a 3.8 GPA. Why do you care if other people know it?" Sam was feeling ashamed and defensive, which had become common to her interactions with Brooke.

Brooke exploded at Sam's obtuseness. "I really don't believe you. Is it possible that you can't understand why I'd be angry? That article was just the latest gambit in your scorched earth campaign against my friends and me. Why do you insist on persecuting me? What did I ever do to you? First it was the walkout you staged during the pep rally, then it was the anthrax rumor during the first night game of the season. Don't even try to tell me that wasn't you. The stands were empty by halftime. And now this. Do you really think Mary Cherry wanted anyone to know that she has a 1.3 grade point average? And poor Josh? He's the best athlete the school has and now people think he's an idiot." Brooke shook her head at the injustice. "I heard you're his new tutor," she added in a tone of disbelief.

"That's Krupp's fault. Don't blame me," Sam defended herself against this last accusation, not able to deny any of the others. Hearing all the evidence stacked against her was sobering.

Some of Brooke's anger dissipated when Sam's usual bitchy retort was not forthcoming. Figuring out what lay behind Sam's tirades against her and her friends had been impossible. They had been making tentative steps toward friendship when Sam's full-bore assault had brought them right back to square one. She had even discussed the problem with Jane in hopes of gaining some insight as to why Sam was behaving so vengefully, but Jane hadn't a clue either. The upshot was that Brooke had learned to keep her mouth shut around Sam, lest it result in a Zapruder cover story with quotes from her own lips.

"If anything," Sam continued in the face of Brooke's perplexed silence, "you should be Josh's tutor. You get better grades."

"No thanks. The last thing Josh and I need is to spend every lunch period together."

"Yeah, I guess it's only been, what, like, a month since you two broke up. Too soon, huh?" Sam felt like she should acknowledge the implication of Brooke's statement, however awkward it made her feel. Theirs was not a relationship that allowed for intimate disclosures.

Brooke was about to confide in Sam when she remembered she was supposed to be angry with her, and she certainly couldn't trust her. "It's none of your business," she snapped.

That was more like it. Sam nodded, back on familiar ground. But she was too tired to get snippy. "You're right, it's not," she agreed.

Brooke looked at her housemate in confusion. That was the second opportunity for a rapid fire comeback that Sam had passed up. This subdued girl before her now was so at odds with the strident combatant she knew from school, she briefly wondered if Sam was suffering from schizophrenia. It was more likely that Sam just suffered from permanent mood swings or some undiagnosed condition. Annoying-itis, maybe. Or Niceness Deficit Disorder. Whatever the cause of Sam's momentary quietude, Brooke impulsively decided to take advantage of it and ask Sam a favor. Before she could stop herself she said, "Would you do something for me, Sam?"

"What?" Sam replied warily.

"Josh is smart; he just doesn't have faith that his brain can do it. He needs someone who will really get through to him, really try for him, you know? You're in a position to do him some good. Will you promise to help him as much as you can?"

Sam nearly took a step back she was so surprised at Brooke's request. Even though they had parted, Brooke still cared enough for Josh to worry about how he performed academically. That was nice. Or maybe Brooke still harbored lingering romantic feelings for her ex-boyfriend. At any rate, the reason for Brooke's kindness toward Josh was incidental. Although Sam was reluctant to believe it, here was irrefutable proof that Brooke had a good heart. And if Brooke was entrusting Sam with her request, then Sam would fulfill it as best she could. "I'll try, Brooke. I promise to try."

"Thanks." Brooke smiled at Sam, and to Sam it felt like someone had just thrown open a window, letting in a cool breeze that teased her skin, sharpened her awareness. And she was alarmed to find herself blushing.

It was ridiculous. Sam's current modus operandi of arranging the most elaborate, bombastic, destructive, public situations in order to loom larger in Brooke's sight did not seem to be working at all. Yet all Brooke had to do was quietly ask a favor and Sam helplessly pledged herself to discharge it.

In her own heart, Sam could admit the reason behind her crusade against football and cheerleaders and the popular crowd was simply a way to attract Brooke's attention, negative though it may be. Unable to deal with Brooke's indifference, Sam devised plans to bring herself into Brooke's line of sight. Unfortunately, she wasn't clever enough to figure out how to do this in a positive way, repeatedly hurting Brooke in the process. The negative impact she was having on Brooke's life was better than no impact at all. And the most confounding thing was Sam's own inability to figure out why she needed, craved even, Brooke's notice. Her frustration cut her to the quick even now and she felt her eyes fill with tears.

Brooke noticed. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Sam answered automatically, bowing her head to hide the lachrymose evidence. After a moment she faced Brooke again, all traces of her distress gone. "Look, come down to dinner or don't. I really don't care. As a matter of fact, I'm not that hungry so feel free to have dinner without nausea-inducing me at the table." With that, she turned and entered her own room, leaving Brooke in the hallway alone.


"Did you read the chapter on Reconstruction yet?" Sam asked, trying to hide her exasperation. Josh was being especially unproductive today.

"No, I'm still on the Battle at Gettysburg. There's way too much reading in this class," Josh complained.

"It's history. All you have to do is read."

"And memorize. And remember all those dates, and who won what battle and who was the general…" Josh sounded completely demoralized.

Sam had soon realized that many factors contributed to effective tutoring. Sometimes she had to hound Josh as if she were his mother, sometimes coach him like, well, a coach, and sometimes build up his confidence like his own personal pep squad. Picking up her metaphorical pom-poms, she went to work. "Hey, remember how well you did on the last test? It's all about small manageable chunks. Don't get overwhelmed by the big picture. You are doing really well in this class. You can do it." Go team. Rah rah rah. Sam was glad she was in the library and she had to speak quietly. If anyone heard her stroking Josh's ego like she often did, she didn't think she could live it down.

Josh continued to stare disconsolately at the brown paper cover of his history book. This was more than just the usual educational reluctance, which Sam had seen a hundred times now. They wouldn't accomplish anything today if she didn't get whatever was bugging him out in the open. Plus she had her own Calculus homework to do and lunch was already half over. "What's up, Josh?

"You wouldn't understand," he mumbled.

"Try me." Relations between them had warmed considerably since the beginning of their tutoring sessions a month earlier. Josh had grudgingly learned to trust her, and Sam found that she felt rewarded by aiding him in his studies. That she was indirectly enabling him to take part in the football program, which she had been actively trying to discredit, had stopped bothering her so much.

"It's Brooke," Josh admitted.

Sam was not expecting this. She sat up a little straighter. "What about her?"

"She's going to go on a date-"

"With whom?" Sam demanded, interrupting Josh. "I haven't seen her with anyone."

"If you'll let me finish," Josh broke back in, peeved. "What I meant to say was that I think she's almost ready to date again. Someday soon, she's going to date somebody, and it's not going to be me," he said sadly.

Sam considered his assertion. It had now been several months since Brooke and Josh had broken up, and after Josh and Carmen's short-lived affair, neither of Kennedy's formerly golden couple had seen any action. But Josh said that was about to change. "Really? Why do you think so?"

"I notice stuff about her," Josh said uncomfortably.

"Because you're still into her," Sam realized at once, connecting the few remaining dots in the picture.

Josh nodded glumly.

"What have you noticed?" Sam was curious.

"It's nothing concrete. She just seems happier, in a more positive mood. Her body language is freer, like she's more open to things lately."

Sam regarded Josh with something like wonder. The boy may not be book smart, but he was certainly perceptive, at least when it came to Brooke. She had not noticed any change in Brooke, but that may have been because she had taken to avoiding her housemate since the fallout from what Brooke called her scorched earth campaign. Vague feelings of guilt and discomfort came to the fore when she was in Brooke's vicinity, and rather than figure out why this was, Sam chose to avoid. She was trying a new tack, hoping it would control her unreasonable urge to stir things up. So far it was working. Turning her mind back to Josh, she tried to help him with his problem.

"Why don't you try to get her back?" she naturally asked.

"And how do you propose I do that?" he replied, almost bitterly. "She'll barely talk to me anymore, not that I blame her with all the mixed signals I've sent. She seemed like she wanted to try again when I was with Carmen, but to me it was only Brooke wanting what she suddenly couldn't have. Then I just needed to be by myself for awhile." Josh turned his head and lapsed into thought, gazing at the stacks without seeing them.

"And now?" Sam prompted.

Josh faced Sam and said with conviction, "Now I know she's the one that I want."

Stifling the unexpected urge to put her fist through a wall, which was her first uncensored reaction to Josh's admission, Sam calmly said, "You should tell her."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because Brooke is so much smarter than me, I always end up tongue-tied around her. Whenever I have something important to tell her, I get nervous and the words get mixed up and come out completely wrong."

Sam understood that. Speaking extemporaneously was not easy. It was why she valued the written word so much. "Maybe you should write her a letter. That way you can figure out what you want to say before it's actually said. There's less pressure that way."

"Hey, yeah! That's a great idea," Josh pulled out a page of loose-leaf and picked up his pencil.

"Wait. You're going to do this now? What about history? The Civil War, remember?"

"Later." Josh was already distracted. He got as far as printing 'Dear Brooke' at the top of the page when he stopped, head bent in concentration. After a moment he looked up at Sam. "What would you-"

"No. No way." Sam didn't let him finish. "If you're not going to do school work then I've got Calculus to do." She pulled her math text from her bag.

"But Sam, you're the writer. You've got to help me."

"Helping you write a love letter goes above and beyond the call of your average tutor. Forget it." Sam opened her book, propping it between them so she couldn't see what Josh was doing.

A few minutes elapsed while the pair worked in silence. Sam could hear the scratching of Josh's pencil, then she felt the table quaking while Josh erased the hell out of something. She refused to look up from her homework problems. When the scratching and table trembling stopped, her curiosity got the better of her.

"What do you have so far?" she asked, placing her book flat on the table.

Josh sheepishly passed the paper to her.

Dear Brooke,

Would you like to go out on a date with me?

_____ Yes

_____ No

_____ Maybe/Ask again later

Thanks.

Love,

Josh

"This is a joke, right?" Sam asked.

"It's worked before," Josh claimed. "One time I passed her a note like this in Biology lab and she loved it!"

"It's not going to work this time," Sam said flatly. "You're trying to jumpstart your relationship, not put it up on concrete blocks. You want to revive something that may already be dead in her eyes. Tell her all the reasons why you don't deserve her, then convince her to give you a chance. Appeal to her sense of passion. Girls like to be swept off their feet."

"Okay. That's good." Josh readied himself to write again, then glanced up from the page, at a loss. "How do I do that?"

"You have to draw a line between everything that went before and what you want to happen in the future. There has to be a clear demarcation."

Josh wrote feverishly, trying to get it all down.

"Start with an apology. She's blameless, everything is your fault." Sam continued, a thoughtful look on her face.

Josh offered her the pencil. "Please, Sam, just give me a few ideas."

Entire paragraphs were forming in her mind. After a moment's hesitation, Sam took the pencil and turned the paper to its blank side. She started to write.

When the bell rang twenty minutes later, she handed Josh the paper, now covered with her words. "Type it or copy it over in your handwriting," Sam instructed. "She never finds out about this."

"No, never," Josh began to read what she had written. "This is perfect, Sam! Thank you!" He put the letter between the pages of his history book and shoved it into his backpack before racing to his next class.

"Don't forget to do your homework!" Sam called after him, earning a frown of disapproval from the librarian. In no rush to move, she sat there staring into space until the second bell sounded. Shakily running a hand through her hair, she tried to get a hold of herself. Of all the thoughts now racing through her brain, there was one that was making itself heard with a desperate repetitive urgency: I am in big trouble.

 

Part 2

Brooke was mentally running through her homework assignments when she opened her locker at the end of the day. She almost didn't notice the page of loose-leaf, folded twice, that fluttered to the floor. Picking it up and glancing at it, she immediately saw that it was in Josh's handwriting. She leaned against the locker next to her own and began to read. After one paragraph, she could hear her heart beating loudly in her veins. After the second, she lifted her eyes from the page and surveyed her surroundings, holding the letter close to her chest.

There was nothing out of the ordinary in the hallway; it was filled with the usual throng of students preparing to go home or sauntering off to their extracurricular activities. Josh was nowhere in sight. When Brooke saw Sam negligently slouched against a wall next to Lily's locker, she could've sworn that the girl had been watching her. But a moment later Sam pushed away from the wall and walked with Lily past Brooke without meeting her eyes.

This was no place for something so personal, in front of prying eyes, but Brooke could not help herself. She turned to face the inside of her locker and started reading from the beginning again.

Dear Brooke,

I have made an unforgivable mistake. It is a mistake of my own making, and I am the one who continues to pay for it. I have let you slip from my fingers. Everyday I see you, your beauty etched in sharp relief among a sea of amorphous faces, and I am reminded of what I had, and what I've lost. I imagine us, somewhere in our past or future, when the sun rises and sets on our happiness.

After so much time, I am making an overture now. It has taken a while to gather the courage to do this. You are the standard to which I set all others, and I feel I should try one more time before I am resigned to a lifetime of second best. I have to know if there is any part of your heart that is still warm for me, like a rock that holds the heat of the day long after it has ended.

I wish you could see me. Really see me. The person you look upon is so different than the person I am. If I could find a way to strip away all the assumptions, the preconceptions, the expectations in which we have bundled ourselves, our emotional Gore-Tex, maybe we could see each other as we really are. I'm willing to leave myself open to the elements if it will allow you a glimpse of the truth. Can you see me with new eyes?

This letter is wholly inadequate for its purpose. I can hardly expect a slim piece of paper to move mountains. But the words on this page are just a few of the many I have to say, and it's not a mountain I have to move. So I will continue to use words, hoping to find the ones that will shift your wise, skeptical heart just enough for you to see me. I will be here. Until that day I remain

Yours,

Josh

"Brooke, why are you wedged halfway into your locker?" Nicole Julian sounded affronted by the image of Brooke looking less than dignified.

"I thought I smelled something weird," Brooke explained, stepping away from her locker, "can you smell it?" She pushed her friend's head into the small metal space while she swiftly slid the letter into her handbag. It was private, not for Nic's eyes. Well, not yet, anyway.

"Ew! That is so foul," Nicole retreated with her hand over her nose, then looked at Brooke with suspicion. "Wait. I didn't smell anything."

"Neither did I," Brooke grinned. "False alarm." She gathered her glamazon gear and headed down the hallway. "Are you coming to practice?"

On their way outside, Brooke hastily revised the agenda for today's practice, substituting a nice long distance run for the team drills she had planned. The squad grumbled as they hit the track, but Brooke already had her ear buds in place and didn't hear.

The pounding of snare and bass along with a spare, tight guitar riff flooded her bones as she fingered the volume control to the maximum. Lately this song got her so pumped when she was working out; she didn't think she'd ever get tired of it. Oh, tryin' to let it go, tryin' to keep my eyes closed… Brooke stood up after an abbreviated stretching routine and took off at a blistering speed, pushing herself for several laps until she eased into a pace she could maintain for the duration of her run. Sneakers striking the asphalt in time to the drums, pulse hammering at her wrists, chest heaving, she finally reached the place where her mind was detached enough to think about Josh's letter.

The poetic heartfelt language – he certainly had her attention. Josh had never been one to write real love letters, but she still had a few of the notes he had passed her in class from the early, innocent days of their courtship locked away in her keepsake box. It seemed so long ago now, and only served to highlight the difference between those childish notes and the mature, poignant missive she had found in her locker today.

She had no idea Josh had it in him to write something so moving, all his hard work this semester was paying off. Although something about the letter bothered her. It was lacking one of Josh's best qualities, his sweetness, and the intensity in tone was antithetical to his easy-going nature. Had Josh really changed that much? And did she have anything to do with the changes in him? It had only been a few months since their breakup, but the yearning that poured from every sentence seemed to indicate he had taken it harder than she had ever imagined.

And why now? Brooke had taken the time since they had split to process her relationship with Josh and decide what she really needed and wanted in a boyfriend. Only recently had she felt emotionally healthy enough to contemplate jumping back into the dating pool, and had been secretly evaluating candidates who might have partner potential. Brooke thought she had been ready to move on, to experience the fun of casual dating. Was another go-round with Josh, with its built-in weightiness, something to realistically consider, or should one of them have the guts to pull this thing out by the roots.

But Brooke was unable to deny the visceral effect the letter had on her. Physiological signals like an elevated heart rate and sweaty palms as she read it told her that she was not immune to the passion Josh claimed to have for her. She owed it to herself to see where it would go, didn't she? Brooke didn't know. Ambivalence made her wary. Adopting a wait and see approach seemed the best course.

Her playlist, she noticed, had ended. She was the only one still circling the track. Cheerleaders dotted the infield in small groups, sitting on green grass waiting for their captain to release them for the day. Slowing to a leisurely jog, she waved Nic over and told her to dismiss the troops. They had the California State Competition coming up next month, it began the day after Thanksgiving, and for which they were nowhere near ready. Brooke knew she should be pushing them harder. But not today, there was always tomorrow.


At dinner, Sam paid particular attention to Brooke, but tried to make it appear that she wasn't. Her housemate did seem more quiet and preoccupied, but Sam couldn't tell if it was due to the letter she had written for Josh or if it was just Brooke's usual policy of barely acknowledging her existence. Since it was Sam's turn to do the dishes, Brooke had made her escape up to her room before Sam had the chance to casually interrogate her.

Sam was burning to know what Brooke had thought of the letter and she was not above inventing interactions to find out. Water running in the bathroom told her that Brooke was most likely washing her face before bed, a process that, for Brooke, was as lengthy as it was complicated. Who knew so many products could be employed just to keep one face clean? Sam knocked on the door.

"I'll be out in a minute," was the muffled reply.

"Can I come in and get my floss? It'll just take a second." An emergency it wasn't, but Sam wasn't about to do something as drastic as use the toilet in front of Brooke. There were some lines she wouldn't cross.

Just because Sam couldn't hear Brooke's sigh of exasperation didn't mean it didn't happen. A moment later she was admitted entry, and she surreptitiously glanced over at Brooke while she claimed the dental floss. Brooke was deeply involved in applying some kind of foaming cleanser to her skin, but Sam thought her housemate could handle the break in concentration that a conversation would cause.

"Do you mind if I brush my teeth while I'm in here? I think I've got a popcorn kernel stuck between my molars." Sam pinked slightly, it was a fine balance between making your story seem real and too much information, and she thought she had just dipped perilously into TMI territory.

"Whatever," Brooke muttered.

As Sam took hold of toothpaste and brush, she frowned. How would she be able to talk if she was foaming at the mouth? Then she got annoyed with herself, that a simple conversation with Brooke involved so much forethought and subterfuge. It would have been much easier to write an inflammatory editorial in the Zapruder and then have a fight about it.

Applying toothpaste to her toothbrush as slowly as humanly possible, Sam casually asked, "How was your day?"

Shooting Sam a look of bafflement, Brooke replied, "Um, fine."

"Anything interesting happen today?" Sam pressed.

Brooke immediately went on the defensive, suspicion raising her hackles. "What are you fishing for, Sam? What's your angle?"

"There is no angle," Sam claimed innocently. "We just haven't talked much lately."

Brooke was getting angry. "Just like we haven't screamed at each other much lately? Or like we haven't come to blows much lately? Whatever story you're working on, I'm not going to help you write it!"

"There is no story. I'm trying to get along with you. I just thought that we could have a normal conversation like two people who live in the same house may be inclined to do once in a while!"

"You'll have to excuse me if I look on your suggestion with a hint of incredulity, Sam. You have a pretty lousy track record when it comes to getting along," Brooke had abandoned her skin care regime to stare balefully at Sam's reflection in the mirror.

"Forget it!" Sam threw down her toothbrush and made for the door. "I'm sorry I even tried."


Sam was up before the sun; after a restless night tossing and turning it was useless to remain in bed. Nodding to a lone janitor as he sat outside enjoying a peaceful, pre-bedlam cigarette, she entered the empty halls of Kennedy High. Her footsteps echoed loudly as she walked to the newspaper office and let herself in with the key Mr. Grant had neglected to retrieve from her before he quit.

Writing something, actually putting words on paper, was the only way she could think of to get this demon out. In her sleepless state the previous night she had come up with a plan that would exorcise all the insane notions that had taken root in her cerebellum, and she would have to bring all her literary talents to bear on the result. It would be totally worth abandoning her journalistic integrity if she was able to pull this off.

For the first time in her life, Sam was going to invent a story. It would be a tale of such hellacious, rapacious, sordid, wrathful scandal it would make Lewinsky-gate look like Romper Room. And Brooke was going down. Sam was going to bury her. Once and for all, she was going to pull Brooke from her golden popular pedestal and force her to live in ostracized obscurity with the rest of the common people.

She didn't have the goods on Brooke so she was going to manufacture them, which wasn't going to be easy. She had no experience with fiction and had no notion of what kind of tale to tell. Booting up one of the computers, she sat in front of a blank Word document and waited for inspiration to strike. It didn't. After ten minutes of resisting the urge to play FreeCell, Sam had an idea. She double-clicked a folder on the desktop labeled "Ricky," which contained all recent photos taken by the paper's photographer, unsurprisingly named Ricky. He would often come in after a school event and plug his digital camera into the USB port and dump his images into the folder, returning later to view and choose the ones that could be considered for layout. Sam remembered him coming in Monday morning, transferring the pictures he had taken from Friday night's football game. Knowing Ricky's so-called "artistic" appreciation of the female form, Sam guessed the cheerleaders would be well represented.

She wasn't wrong. A hair trigger finger clicked rapidly through endless shots of uncompleted passes and T-formations until she reached the halftime photos. There, among arty shots of the marching band's brass section, were several close-ups of the cheerleaders on the sidelines, their backs to the gridiron as they attempted to entertain the crowd. There had to be an image of Brooke on which Sam could fixate, a photo that would surely remind her of how rotten and evil and arrogant Brooke was, one that would inspire the levels of revulsion needed to come up with a truly shocking article for the Zapruder Reporter.

And there it was. Ricky had outdone himself. An image, shot from a low angle, appeared on the screen. The open-limbed pose displayed a body that was at rest, but either just finished or about to start moving. It sent a message of power and strength and joy. Lean Legs, defined by planes of muscle, were held slightly apart, ending in firmly planted white Jack Purcells on the track surface. Slim and strong arms were upraised, fists clenched, suggesting force and focus. Brooke's face was caught in an expression of breathless pleasure, open-mouthed and smiling, her eyes delighted at the response of the unseen crowd. Her cheeks were healthily flushed and her hair swished at an angle behind her, not having caught up with her arrested motion.

Sam opened the picture in Photoshop and cropped it so that it became a close-up of Brooke's head and shoulders. Saving the new image, she moved it to the right of the desktop before resizing her Word window so that it could sit next to the photo without obscuring it. She leaned in close to the monitor, intently gazing at the million or so pixels that made up Brooke's face for a moment. Then she began to type.

Locker doors slamming with increasing frequency and youthful voices raised in greeting a short time later told Sam that she would not be alone in the Zapruder office for much longer. She sat back in her chair and quickly read what she had written. The words had been expelled from her with a swiftness that was annoying. Precisely pinning her thoughts was usually as difficult as collecting falling raindrops with an eyedropper, but the page before her had flowed with the ease of pouring water into a glass. She was glad to have it all purged from her mind, but sooner or later she would have to deal with the emotions that inspired her words. Sighing in resignation, Sam pasted the text of her document into her email program, attached the cropped image of Brooke to it, and sent it to herself. Then she typed Josh's name at the bottom of the document and printed it before deleting the file. If she was going to make a habit of writing love letters to Brooke McQueen, someone should at least get the benefit of it.

Part 3

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